How do you know if you're with the right person? You've probably thought about this question. I'm going to list some qualities that a partner can have that people might think about in relation to this, and maybe you can guess the answer:
They share a lot of common interests with you
They share a lot of common values with you
They share a lot of personality traits of yours
They have different personality traits that complement yours
They always agree with you
You laugh a lot together
You don't hardly fight/argue at all
They are highly intelligent
They don't shy away from responsibilities
They don't exhibit extreme emotions (e.g. anger or sadness)
They are strongly principled (e.g. based on their religion or personal philosophy)
They seem particularly thoughtful when giving gifts or planning outings
So, which of these do you think it is? I'll give you a hint. Googling it won't give you the answer.
In this post, I’m going to go out on a limb. As someone who has a background doing scientific research, I normally like to lean heavily into established evidence. But, in this particular case, the evidence doesn’t have a lot of clear conclusions. So I’m going to lean on my experience with clients’ relationships and my experience in my own life, as well as my understanding of the dynamics of relationships (which ultimately does rest on published research and clinical work in the field of relationships and relationship therapy).
In other words, I can’t prove what I’m about to suggest. With that disclaimer out of the way, I will still stand behind my opinion, and we’ll get right to it. At the very least, it might lead to some interesting discussions.
The reason you’re here is probably because the post title intrigued you. Of course, we all want to know, is this person I’m with “the one”? That might mean different things to different people though. We might want to know: will my relationship/marriage last? Will this person be there for me through thick and thin?
Let me set some additional ground rules for this discussion. Probably all of the things I have listed have significant predictive value- meaning that all of them probably matter to some degree. And then there are a bunch of (what many would call negative) qualities that clearly have predictive value in the direction of the relationship not working out. For example, personality traits like emotional instability, disagreeableness, closed-mindedness, low conscientiousness/responsibility, etc.
The question I want to address is- what is the one thing that has more predictive value than any other one thing. I’m going to leave out things like a principled commitment to sticking things through or a belief that divorce is wrong. Yes, these things will affect the longevity of a relationship, but are less predictive when it comes to the quality of that relationship. After all, you could still be in a relationship, but just not one you are happy with.
So with that out of the way, here we go. What do I think is most important, more so than any single quality I put at the top of this article?
It’s what I would call relationship responsiveness. That’s just my unofficial term for it, and I’ll tell you what it means to me.
This is the quality that when you express a concern to your partner, whether that comes from an argument that you recently had, or just questions about where your relationship is going that you don’t have the answers to yet because it hasn’t come up, that they seem to care about your concerns and are invested in addressing your concern. This might seem obvious, but in a great number of relationships, it doesn’t happen.
Notice, it doesn’t mean that you agree on everything. You might have even just had an argument. I will remind the reader that relationships where the two partners agree on just about everything are as common as unicorns– they really just don’t exist. It is inevitable that partners will have disagreements on some things, because each partner has a different brain that works in its own way, and each partner has had their own life experiences that have informed their beliefs and values.
But what it does mean is that your partner doesn’t dismiss your concerns as not important, perhaps because your concern doesn’t have as much value to them. In fact, a good example of relationship responsiveness is that when you tell your partner that your partner that you did feel dismissed for some reason (and you will, it’s just an inevitable part of being in a relationship, and it will likely happen unintentionally, and you will also likely do it to your partner), they don’t throw up their hands and walk away like it’s a pain in the butt to deal with you. It means that your partner does not say the infamous “I’m sorry you feel that way”, as if that excuses them from further effort towards understanding where your concerns come from. Instead, the responsive partner might actually want to find out more about really understanding your concern or how much it means to you. But it doesn’t mean they have to be a total angel. Sometimes it is hard when a different person has a different point of view that you don’t understand yet. But even if it might be a frustrating experience for them to address your concern, they are genuine in wanting to learn more about you and understand what makes you tick. And that’s how they view it when you have a concern– instead of treating you like you have a character flaw or that your concerns just aren’t important enough to discuss.
And, in case you haven’t caught on yet, the degree to which you have this quality is equally as important in whether the relationship will succeed. It’s not all on them after all.
Now, this doesn’t mean that if you have this approach to relationships that it will overcome everything else regardless of how much you have in common. If you have too much trouble connecting with your partner and producing positive, enjoyable, satisfying moments between the two of you, it will be hard to sustain a relationship no matter how positive your attitude about working on the relationship is. So don’t ignore those factors. If you want children and your partner doesn’t, well, that might be too wide a chasm to bridge.
So, yes, all of the items at the top of the page are important to some degree. But in terms of what I see in my practice that leads to happy partners and satisfying relationships, relationship responsiveness trumps all of them.